For One Nassar Survivor, Recognizing Her Own Abuse Took Decades — And 2 Key Moments : Believed Even some of Larry Nassar's victims found it hard to believe they themselves were abused. This is the story of a patient who supported him for years, despite the allegations. Hear what it took for her to finally accept the truth.
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For One Nassar Survivor, Recognizing Her Own Abuse Took Decades — And 2 Key Moments

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For One Nassar Survivor, Recognizing Her Own Abuse Took Decades — And 2 Key Moments

For One Nassar Survivor, Recognizing Her Own Abuse Took Decades — And 2 Key Moments

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KATE WELLS, HOST:

This is Kate. If you are just starting this series, stop and go back to Episode 1. Things will make more sense that way.

LINDSEY SMITH, HOST:

On the morning of September 20, 2016, 10 police officers show up at Larry Nassar's home. It's in a suburban neighborhood - lots of trees, chalk drawings on the sidewalk. Larry's house has a swingset out back. Police are at the front door. They've got a search warrant. Michigan State University detective Andrea Munford knocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREA MUNFORD: Do you have your SAT phone?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

WELLS: When police get inside, Detective Munford goes down to the basement. There's the massage table set up by the fireplace where Larry treats his patients, crates and shelves full of old files and papers Larry just never threw out. And more kid stuff - their artwork, movies, sports equipment.

MUNFORD: And just seeing that he lived this normal family life really fit with how he groomed everybody. And yet we knew this other side of him.

SMITH: When Detective Munford comes up from the basement, another officer tells her...

MUNFORD: Hey, I just noticed the trash hasn't been picked up.

SMITH: The brown trash bin at the end of Larry's driveway is still full. By sheer chance, the garbage truck was running late that day. The officer dumps Larry's trash in the back of a police pickup truck. When they get it back to the station, officers comb through Larry's garbage. They find a little plastic grocery bag that's filled with what looks like bathroom trash - Q-tips, face wipes, Kleenex - and three external hard drives. Two of the drives have Larry Nassar written right on them. Detective Munford thinks, that's weird.

MUNFORD: He doesn't throw a lot of things away, and yet he threw hard drives out in his trash. I mean, he had files, crates and crates of files, and looked like he saved everything. And yet those hard drives were in the trash.

SMITH: Forensics teams start to analyze the evidence. About a week later, Detective Munford is in a meeting at MSU's police department. An officer bursts in shouting, CP, CP.

MUNFORD: And I said, what? And he said, child porn. There's child porn on one of the hard drives. And I was like - that was when they have to get an additional search warrant. And then they just kept finding it.

SMITH: Thirty-seven thousand images of child pornography on Larry Nassar's hard drives.

WELLS: Later, Trinea Gonczar gets a phone call. You met Trinea in Episode 1. She grew up loving Larry, loving him like family. He treated her gymnastics injuries for decades, and she trusted him without question. She says, this call is from somebody in law enforcement. And she knows an investigator has been talking with some of her old teammates. On that call, Trinea says she remembers this investigator saying...

TRINEA GONCZAR: We can't tell you if it's you, but there were images of little girls in his bathtub.

WELLS: In this episode, you're going to hear what it's like when you love someone, you trust them completely, and then you discover something that makes you question if you ever really knew them at all. And you'll hear how difficult it can be to accept the truth. I'm Kate Wells.

SMITH: And I'm Lindsey Smith. This is BELIEVED.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: You know when you've got a friend who, like, cuts hair or does massage therapy or something, somebody you can call up at any moment and be like, hey, can I swing by this week? Larry was kind of like that. He would treat patients outside of his official gym hours, including in his own home.

SMITH: Trinea's mom, Dawn Homer, remembers back in the day - this was in the early 1990s - when Larry was just a trainer in med school, he'd turn his apartment into a sort of makeshift clinic.

DAWN HOMER: I'd call Larry and say, this is what's happening - blah, blah, blah. He'd say, meet at my apartment. And we went to his apartment. One - somebody would be soaking in the bathtub in ice. Trinea would usually be on the table. You know, he'd be warming up her muscles. He would have gymnastics magazines for them to read. He had an egg timer. She would always talk about the egg timer for how long people would have to be in the position that they were in.

So it felt very organized and very much like you're getting a treatment. And that's always the way I felt. It was always in their best interest. And I literally could have called him night or day. He was a family friend. We just trusted him. It was years and years of trusting the man.

WELLS: When Trinea and her mom saw that very first article about Larry in 2016, the one with Rachael Denhollander, they were devastated to see him accused. But Trinea says...

GONCZAR: I honestly thought, he's got enough doctors on his side; someone's going to come forward and clear him. Like, someone's going to explain that this treatment is legitimate.

WELLS: It's not that they don't believe Rachael exactly. It's more like they have seen this movie before, you know? Somebody accuses Larry, but then it's declared a misunderstanding, and everything is fine again.

SMITH: Like back in 2004, when Brianne Randall was the one accusing Larry of abuse. You heard Brianne's story in Episode 2. Dawn remembers one fall morning, she's in her kitchen...

HOMER: When Trinea came in and said, Mom, you won't believe what's happening. Larry's being accused of sexual inappropriateness. And I'm like, Larry, our Larry? Literally, our Larry?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Rumors about Brianne's case spread fast through Haslett High School, the same high school Trinea graduated from. Trinea remembers the gossip. People were blaming Brianne.

GONCZAR: There was a lot of, like, you know, people talking bad about her and that kind of thing. And I remember...

SMITH: Like, what would they...

GONCZAR: Like, just, you know, she just wants attention, or she doesn't even know him.

SMITH: But Trinea knows firsthand vaginal manipulations are just part of Larry's regular treatments. He did it to her hundreds of times. She never thought the treatments were wrong, and she never thought to tell her mom about them. So in 2004, Trinea felt bad for Brianne, who was not a gymnast. Trinea figured Brianne must be confused.

GONCZAR: I remember thinking, like, if I could just get to her, if I could just talk to her and explain to her how many times this happened to me, like, she would understand that it was just to make her better.

SMITH: When police dropped Brianne's case, that backed up Trinea's gut feeling.

GONCZAR: Yeah. Well, I had heard that it had been cleared, so I had assumed that there was a misunderstanding.

WELLS: Ten years after Brianne's case, the gymnastics rumor mill fired up again. This time it was about Amanda Thomashow, the grad student who complained about Larry to Michigan State University. MSU put Larry on leave during the investigation. At that point, in 2014, Trinea is traveling overseas. So she messages Larry on Facebook.

GONCZAR: What's going on? Are you all right? And he'd be like, oh, I'm OK. Like, you know, just send prayers and, you know, we're going to get through it together and such and such.

WELLS: And Larry did get through it again.

SMITH: Each time Larry was believed instead of his accusers, Trinea's trust in Larry is reaffirmed. It is legitimate treatment. Poor guy; he's just misunderstood. So when Trinea sees Rachael's story in the IndyStar in 2016, she's sad, sure, but sad for Larry, sad for his wife, Stephanie, their kids.

GONCZAR: And I felt really bad for our gym. You know, all these people that love this person - like, so much love for him.

SMITH: It might sound strange, but Trinea's belief in Larry - it doesn't fade, not right away. I mean, she's got 30-plus years of love for this guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Trinea remembers in 2016, when Rachael's article came out, there was still a lot of support for Larry. At the time, Larry was running for school board in his home town. And despite these very public accusations, despite him being fired from MSU, Larry still got more than 20 percent of all the ballots cast - 3,426 votes. It was not enough to win, but in a small town, that's a lot of votes. And Trinea says there were letter-writing campaigns vouching for Larry's character, testifying about the kind of guy he was.

GONCZAR: And I know that there were situations of people praying with him, meeting him at churches and a lot of people having, like, prayer groups in centers and things like that around him, in support of him.

SMITH: Then in the fall of 2016, Larry is arrested for criminal sexual conduct. Even then, Dawn says, she and Trinea still cannot believe that Larry would hurt anyone, not intentionally.

HOMER: This isn't the Larry we knew. This isn't the Larry we loved.

WELLS: Believing the truth about Larry takes more for Trinea. It was gradual, a process with a few key moments. The first was on her birthday in December of 2016, the day the federal government charges Larry Nassar with receiving and possessing child pornography.

GONCZAR: I was, like, literally gutted. My stomach was sick.

WELLS: For Trinea, this is when her thinking starts to change. Around this time, Trinea remembers getting that call from a law enforcement official about images of girls in Larry's bathtub. Trinea is stunned. She doesn't remember many details from that conversation. And we should tell you we weren't able to track down whoever called Trinea. And it's a weird part of the story. A federal agent testified that Larry made his own pornographic images, but they never actually charged him with that. Still, Trinea says this phone call makes her think back to when she was a kid, going to Larry's apartment for treatment, icing down in his bathtub.

GONCZAR: You know, it's like when you really realize that there's another side to someone. And at that point, I was kind of still - like, I knew that it was not good. I knew that things were not good. And I knew that this had happened to me. But I was not in a space yet where I was like, I'm going to come forward.

WELLS: The way Trinea describes her reaction here, it sounds hard to fathom, just I knew that this was not good. But if something shattering has happened to your family, you might know this feeling. This weird autopilot takes over. It's like an out-of-body experience where you can calmly think, oh, this is bad. That's the kind of space Trinea lives in for the next several months.

Now Larry is facing two separate court battles, one for the child pornography charges in federal court, the other for the sexual assault charges in state court. And the two cases are playing out at the same time. Trinea and her mom are following all the developments on the local news. Through the winter and spring of 2017, Trinea watches the coverage of Larry's cases, sees him show up in court in jail jumpsuits, hands shackled.

GONCZAR: And I remember thinking, oh, my God, that is not Larry. Like, he is skin and bones. He doesn't even look like himself. Like, this is just so terrible. I can't believe this is happening. Like, what has - you know, what has he done? Literally, like, what is going on? I'm still, like, in the shock space.

WELLS: She stayed in that shock space through the summer of 2017. That's when Larry pleads guilty to possessing child pornography. Federal prosecutors tell the judge the child pornography depicts children as young as infants. Despite his guilty plea for the child pornography charges, in the fall of 2017, Larry is still maintaining his innocence on the sexual assault charges. He is still insisting that this was all just a misunderstood medical technique.

And we're going to step away from Trinea's story just for a moment to introduce you to somebody else, somebody who is the driving force behind what happens next. At this point, Larry is going to prison for child porn. And there are plenty of prosecutors who would have said, mission accomplished. The whole case could have just ended right there. But Angela Povilaitis is not that kind of prosecutor.

ANGELA POVILAITIS: There's something very personal about, you know, I said this happened. The prosecutor believes me. They bring my charges. I get to come to court and confront my perpetrator. It's not easy. But it's important for them. And I think it's important for society, too, I mean, that we in law enforcement and in prosecution believe the victims enough that we are going to bring these charges.

WELLS: Angie Povilaitis was the Michigan assistant attorney general, the lead prosecutor on the sexual assault case against Nassar.

POVILAITIS: I also don't think you get a free sexual assault, right? I mean, it's like if someone murdered somebody and they murdered five more people. I think, you know, you should be held responsible for the crimes that you commit.

SMITH: Like a lot of trial attorneys, Angie is a fast talker. And just to make sure you're keeping up, she ends a lot of her sentences with, right? And she's passionate about the cases other prosecutors often see as too risky or unwinnable, complex sexual assault cases.

POVILAITIS: I think that they're equally as important as homicide cases, if not more so, right? Because we've seen through many of my cases the lasting impact on our victims well beyond their day in court.

SMITH: So even though Larry Nassar was already going down for the child porn, Angie wasn't satisfied. By the fall of 2017, Angie says they had 125 reported sexual assault victims. That's when Larry's attorneys reached out to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Larry wants to cut a deal, they tell her. He'll plead guilty on the sexual assault charges. To this day, no one's sure why. Maybe Larry wants the whole thing to be over. Maybe he wants to spare his family a long trial. But even then Angie goes out on a limb, says, OK, you want to cut a deal? Then first, Larry has to admit in court that there was no legitimate medical purpose for what he did to those girls, that he did it for his own sexual gratification. And second, every single survivor gets to face him in court and make a statement. Negotiating this deal came down to the wire.

POVILAITIS: God, I want to say, like, 7 or 8 o'clock the night before we were still negotiating terms, right? And, you know, sometimes folks talk about the government and all of their resources. And my printer broke at home. And I had to drive to Kinko's at, like, you know, 8:30 at night and entrust this Kinko's worker with, you know, printing this horribly sensitive document, right?

SMITH: Ultimately Larry agreed. He'd take the deal. So Angie and her team start to call all 125 victims who had reported at that time and telling them...

POVILAITIS: If you choose, we are going to make it part of the plea agreement that you come to court and get to confront him.

SMITH: You get to confront him. That for Angie was the most important part of the plea deal. On November 22, 2017, Larry stands in front of a judge, listening to his attorney read him the terms of his plea deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANNON SMITH: Do you understand that in the plea agreement and what we've put before this court today, you are waiving any defenses that your actions were for a legitimate medical purpose?

LARRY NASSAR: Yes.

SMITH: Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina needles him with a few follow-up questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSEMARIE AQUILINA: And it was not for any medical purpose. Is that correct?

NASSAR: Correct.

AQUILINA: It was for your own purpose. Is that correct?

NASSAR: Yes.

WELLS: But if the tearful, tense courtroom is waiting for some kind of closure, some kind of repentance from Larry, they're not getting it. Larry seems pained, yes. But in a brief statement, he sounds less like he's admitting his guilt from multiple sexual assaults and more like he is sacrificing himself for the community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NASSAR: I think this is important, that - what I've done today to help move a community forward and away from the hurting and let the healing start. That's - a couple of things that I can do to stop the hurting is this. And I think that's important for all those involved. And that - I'm so horribly sorry that this was like a match that turned into a forest fire out of control. And I pray the rosary every day for forgiveness for their - I want them to heal. I want this community to heal. I have no animosity towards anyone. I just want healing. It's time. So I guess that's the biggest thing, is let's - we need to move forward in a sense of growth and healing. And I pray that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: This would not be Larry Nassar's last court appearance. In fact, the big showdown wouldn't happen until after Christmas at his sentencing hearing. That's coming up after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: The very same week Larry pleads guilty to abuse, Trinea Gonczar's life changes again.

GONCZAR: Yeah, because I found out I was pregnant. To be honest, this is exactly when it snapped for me.

SMITH: If the first turning point for Trinea was the child pornography, then getting pregnant was the second pivotal moment. She makes an appointment with an OB-GYN.

GONCZAR: As the appointment started to creep up, it was like I was having these crazy anxiety attacks of, like, there's no way I'm going to see this guy. Like, he doesn't know me. I don't know him. Now I have to be in this situation where he's going to be invasive and doing these medical procedures, and I'm going to traumatize him because I'm going to be like, don't touch me. And I started to realize at that time that I was - there was things that I was not facing that I - that were creeping up on me slowly, slowly, as they were creeping up on me. And so I called my husband, like, completely freaking out. Like, what do I do? And he's like, well, do we need to talk to a counselor?

SMITH: Trinea starts seeing a therapist. And she says these memories start coming back to her from around the time she was 10 years old, a gymnast at Great Lakes Gymnastics where Larry was their trainer, where he taped girls up in the back room at the gym.

GONCZAR: And I started to have these memories, like, of Great Lakes when there would be covers over the windows. Like, why were there covers over the windows? I don't know because it doesn't make sense now looking back. But none of the parents were allowed in that back room. And why else would there be something over those windows? You know, like, you just start - all of a sudden you start remembering things that you just never questioned or never even thought twice about.

SMITH: Trinea says her therapist gives her a suggestion.

GONCZAR: You know, this poor counselor - I felt bad for her because this was her first person of the Nassar survivors, which - now she sees tons of us. But I remember her thinking and saying to me, you know, there are people that can help you through this process if you need. And I'm like, who the hell's going to help me? Aren't you supposed to help me? Like, you're a counselor. Like, what's going on? Like, aren't you supposed to fix me? And she's like, no. Like, you know, there could be police officers that you should talk to or, you know, attorneys.

SMITH: It's not until January of 2018 that Trinea goes to see an attorney, one who already represents several other Nassar survivors.

GONCZAR: And he had me fill out, like, 18 pages of paperwork. And that's when they estimated the amount of times that this treatment had had happened to me. And he said, I just want to prepare you, but you're the highest of the treatments.

SMITH: Let me translate that for you. Trinea's lawyer says because Trinea saw Larry so many times for so many years, she had received more of Larry's, quote, "treatments" than any other survivor who'd come forward at that time, an estimated 800 times. Back then of course, when she was a gymnast, she didn't recognize it as abuse. Now she'll half-jokingly call herself the practice body.

WELLS: Trinea knows Larry's sentencing is coming up in just a few days. And remember; Angie Povilaitis, the prosecutor, has set this up so that all of Larry's victims can have the chance to confront him. Trinea still isn't sure she wants to speak in court, but she gets invited to a gathering the night before Larry's sentencing begins.

Angie worked with police to put together a sort of family meeting, as they called it, a way to prepare these women and girls to make their statements and to show them, you're not alone. They're giving advice like, if you think you'll be nervous to face Larry directly, print out a picture of him; practice making your statement to that. About a hundred survivors and their parents are there nervously nibbling on pizza the police chief ordered. Trinea is there, too.

GONCZAR: I'm super sick, super pregnant, puking my guts out, miserable.

SMITH: But Trinea remembers it felt oddly reassuring to be in that crowd of women and girls who survived Larry Nassar's abuse. It's the first time they've all been in the same room.

GONCZAR: And I get to this meeting. And at this point still I'm, like, on the fence if I'm going to have - if I'm going to do an impact statement.

SMITH: But then she hears Kyle Stephens' story. You heard part of it in Episode 3. Kyle was Larry's family friend who he abused for years in his basement starting when she was just 6 years old. For Trinea, hearing Kyle's story is the final moment that changes how she thinks about Larry.

GONCZAR: I was so furious. Like, I literally wanted to kill him at that moment to hear her story. I was just so angry for this poor girl. And like, that's when I really transitioned myself into the decision of, I can't support him anymore, and I need to support the girls.

SMITH: Trinea decides she will make a statement at Larry's sentencing.

WELLS: The next morning, January 16, 2018, Larry Nassar's sentencing begins. Even before the courthouse opens, survivors and their parents and a handful of reporters, including me - we are all lined up outside in the dark, breath visible in the cold morning air. As we move through the metal detectors, get our handbags scanned, we clutch travel mugs of coffee and make polite, awkward small talk in the elevator. The courtroom fills up quickly with TV crews lining the walls and staff reminding everyone to turn off their phones please.

SMITH: And then it begins. Over the course of a week, 156 women and girls come forward, one after another after another, a brutal stream of tears and rage. They speak of suicide attempts and shattered families.

WELLS: But Larry sits stone-faced in the witness stand, pale and unshaven with his gold wireframe glasses. Trinea and Dawn don't go to court for those first few days. They watch Larry on the news thinking maybe the Larry we knew is dead. He's just not in there anymore. But on the fourth day of sentencing, Trinea comes to make her statement. Her mom, Dawn, remembers watching Larry sitting at the front of the courtroom in the witness stand.

HOMER: When I saw him listening to the other gals, he was just stunned. He didn't show emotion. He didn't look up. He didn't even the slightest bit respond when they would ask a question, which - I thought that was pretty amazing on his part because I don't know how he would have been able to blacken out all the conversation. But when he saw Trinea, his face completely drained. And I thought, oh, we're in for something here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONCZAR: My name is Trinea Gonczar. It's T-R-I-N-E-A G-O-N-C-Z-A-R.

AQUILINA: Thank you. What would you like me to know?

GONCZAR: Your honor, I would like - would appreciate more than - rewind. Hang on here (laughter). I appreciate more than you will ever know of the chance of being able to speak to Larry. If you will allow it, I would like to address him directly.

AQUILINA: You may.

GONCZAR: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Be strong. Be strong.

GONCZAR: What have you done? My words are to you, Larry. We both know I've known you basically all of my life. In fact, I've known you 31 of 37 years. And this last year has traumatized me in ways you cannot even begin to imagine as I've had to realize I was abused for many years of my life. And this, my old friend, is because of you. Initially and only until recently, I have defended you. I have fought for you. I have believed you. I thought they must have under - misunderstood you. I was standing by you. I shouldn't have, but I did.

WELLS: Dawn, standing beside her daughter, sees Larry. For the first time in this entire court case, he's crying - open, uncontrollable weeping. His face reddens. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. He pulls off his glasses, wipes his space with a Kleenex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONCZAR: I remember feeling so lucky to have you in my life. I remember feeling that if no one could fix me, you could. I remember watching the newest Olympic gymnast go up on the wall, one by one, as you grew more and more famous. I remember being scared you would leave us to become this super new doctor, and we would have to find someone new to put us back together. I remember thinking Stephanie was the luckiest woman in the world. And I prayed I would find someone like you for myself. I never doubted you. I never felt scared of you. We literally loved you like family because we thought you loved us back.

WELLS: I just want to pause in Trinea's statement for a moment. We're going to come back to it in a second. It may be hard to understand, but Trinea told us that even now, today, a part of her still loves Larry, the Larry she knew.

GONCZAR: You know, if you think about a situation - and this is the only way that I was able to really even get my husband to understand. Me saying I loved him or that I do love him is when I think about the school shootings.

WELLS: She says it's like this. Imagine you have a kid. And then one day, your kid - they go and shoot up a school.

GONCZAR: You loved them yesterday. You love them today. Whether they are alive or dead, you're going to love them tomorrow. You don't like what they did. And in fact, you hate what they did. And you're so angry and mad and all these feelings. So for me, that's the only way I can get people to really identify what it's like to unconditionally love somebody who did something really bad. There's no way that you just shut that off for somebody if you really loved somebody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONCZAR: I had to make an extremely hard choice this week, Larry. I had to choose whether continue supporting you through this or to support them, the girls. I choose them, Larry. I choose to love them and protect them. I choose to stop caring for you and supporting you. I choose to look you in the face and tell you that you hurt us. You hurt me. I hope you will see it from me in my eyes today that I believed in you always until I couldn't anymore.

I hope you cry like we cry. I hope you feel bad for what you've done. I hope more than anything each day these girls can feel less pain. I hope you want that for us. But this is goodbye to you, Larry. And this time, it's time for me to close the door. It's time for me to stand up for these little girls and not stand behind you anymore, Larry. Goodbye, Larry. May God bless your dark, broken soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELLS: Next time on BELIEVED...

SMITH: Justice for Brianne Randall, for Kyle Stephens, for Amanda Thomashow, for Rachael Denhollander, for any and every woman like Trinea who decides it's time to face Larry and tell him what he did. And something amazing happens when the world hears their voices. Finally, the women are the ones who are believed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: This week's show was reported by me, Lindsey Smith, and Kate Wells, produced by Juliet Hinely with help from Paulette Parker, edited by Sarah Hulett with help from Alison MacAdam, engineered and mixed by Bob Skon. Jennifer Guerra is the show's executive producer. Zoe Clark is our program director. Our theme music is by Paul Brill, additional music by Ramtin Arablouei.

WELLS: Special thanks to Emma Winowiecki, Jodi Westrick, Rebecca Williams, Vince Duffy, Amy Tardif, Len Niehoff, Mick Grewal, Nisa Khan, Hanna Rubinstein and Lara Moehlman, and the folks at NPR - Mark Memmott, Ashley Messenger, Camille Smiley and N'Jeri Eaton.

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